Our summer pilot, “Living the Dream,” is coming to an end this week, and I find myself asking how this can be. I know, I know, I do this at the end of every semester. It’s like I wake up one day, certain that someone pushed the fast-forward button on time remaining in the course, which sends all of us, my students and me, careening toward a sometimes celebratory, and sometimes denouement ending. That end-of-the-semester feeling should have a name in the English language, a word that says relief, pride, regret, exhilaration, sadness, and deep-in-your-bones-exhaustion in a few easy syllables.
But there’s no such word, especially for the way I feel as our summer cMOOC is drawing to a close. This was the summer where I had the opportunity to teach in a different way than I have ever taught; this was the summer that changed my thinking about what it means to cultivate and participate in a community of online learners.
Long before the cMOOC was dreamed, my partner and I had planned a trip to Thailand. My mother, before she passed away, had asked me what I most wanted to do with a small stash of money she was leaving me, and I said, without pause, “travel.” She made me promise to do that; we did the locked pinky-finger swear on it. I had not traveled since her death two years ago, and the trip was a sort of celebration of my promise to her.
I considered canceling the trip after I was asked to participate in the cMOOC, but then I thought: “This is a course taught entirely online. My obligation is to be online, not be in Richmond.” And so, with some trepidation, I went to Thailand after the third week of the course, and I took my students with me. And it was, in so many ways, the most amazing journey.
I can tell you stories about Google Hangouts with students from hotel rooms and airports. I can tell you about waking at 3:00 am to attend a Google Hangout held in Eastern Standard Time, and fumbling around in the dark to find a collared shirt to cover my pajamas! I can tell you about racing home on a motorbike after a rainstorm to attend a scheduled Hangout with two of my students. I can tell you about recording videos to my students by pools and in a hot hotel lobby. I can recount late night and early morning blog commenting sitting outside with lattes on breezy terraces or in crowded open air restaurants. But these stories, while very much a part of my time in Asia AND my time in the “classroom,” are not the most amazing things I experienced this summer in our pilot course.
I am not sure, but I think that because I was teaching from so far away, I was able to find a perspective on what we had been working so hard to build in the months before the course began; and I was able to recognize, sometimes in almost startling ways, how community is forged and thrives in the best of cMOOC learning environments like ours has been.
Before I left I had been anxious and afraid that I would feel as far away as I actually was. But here’s the thing that surprised me right away: I never felt far away, never had that “oh no I need to catch up” feeling I’ve had in my face to face classes after a snow day, or after missing a class to attend a conference. I flew across the world, but I never felt disengaged from my students or my colleagues or the wider thoughtvectors community. And this, I realized, is what connected learning really means.
Here’s another unexpected thing I quickly realized: my students weren’t emailing me all the time with questions. In fact, my email inbox was eerily empty. In previous online classes (taught on Blackboard), I received frequent emails from students: I was their “go-to” person whenever there was a question, and trust me, there were always a lot of questions. In my face-to-face classes, I get emails from students all the time, especially when they encounter problems with their research, their personal lives, or with technology.
But here I was, diligently checking my email twice a day in Thailand, and my inbox was empty. Something was going on; something must be wrong.
What was going on was Twitter. Checking the twitter feed daily, I began to see that my students didn’t need to email me with every problem they encountered. They had a whole community to consult.
I'm coming clean. I don't know how to check my grades on the #thoughtvectors site or wherever they are.
— Morgan Songlin (@Happythoughts13) July 15, 2014
In a reply to her tweet, Jon Becker suggested that she check Blackboard for her grades. “And so they are,” she replied. “Thanks!”
Another problem: “How have you guys been finding/choosing which blogs to comment on?” a student tweeted. Tom Woodward told her about the random post picker on the thoughtvectors.net site for blogs in her section or all sections.
— Gerell Malazarte (@gerellTV) July 17, 2014
Sure enough, a reply with a link to this article appeared.
Two comments from Alan Levine and Jon Becker provided him with helpful information:
— Katie Cairns (@katieccairns) July 2, 2014
And you know what Tom Woodward did? He shared “a chunk” of all of his “long term #gender related links” from his Diigo folder. Years of collected research on gender, shared with my student in one swift mouse click.
Students were asking for and getting help on their own. Am I the only one who finds this kind of crowd sourcing for answers amazing?
In my face to face classes, especially in Univ 200, I spend so much time nudging and cajoling students to reach out and get help if they need it, make connections, email those librarians, talk to each other about their projects. I try to decentralize the classroom, try to convince them that they can be as much help to one another as I can be, but often I still remain the default problem-solver in Univ 200.
While I always found myself having to urge my students to problem solve first without involving me in my face to face classes, I never had to even address this issue in the cMOOC. Maybe it was the structure of the course itself, the openness of the platform, or the genuine unselfish spirit of some of the other participants (especially my colleagues and the open participants) that provided a space that encouraged students to reach out for help from someone besides “the teacher.”
Looking for inquiry proposals that are similar to my own. I'm writing about the trade off b/w privacy & national security #thoughtvectors
— Symone Allen (@SymonesWorld) July 1, 2014
— Carol Hartmann (@StaffSandboxOER) July 1, 2014
Students were using Twitter to network, find resources and answers to questions they didn’t know — all without my nudging. What teacher, sitting in Thailand waiting for emails, wouldn’t be happy about that?
Another realization: I never had one email from a student asking me to clarify any of the weekly blog assignments, and students blogged at least four times every week. In past online classes I have always received an email or two asking for clarification about assignments. In face to face classes, a few students always hang around after class to ask me to explain an assignment one more time. Why wasn’t this happening in the cMOOC?
I can’t answer that. But again, I suspect it has something to do with the space itself. The thoughtvectors platform allowed students immediate access to blogs from other students across sections who were working on the same assignments. The structure of the space, then, encouraged browsing and looking around, and in doing so, maybe students found answers to questions they may have had, or inspiration for posts they needed to write. Also, I suspect what Jason Coats often said as we planned the course, that the openness of the platform allowed for norming up, as well. I didn’t have students who wrote five sentence blog posts, and maybe, just maybe, that was because they saw their peers doing so much more, and so they understood or felt motivated to do the same.
None of this is to say that we didn’t encounter problems along the way in our course. Like every summer course, we felt pressed for time and weren’t able to develop some of the teaching components as thoroughly as we would have liked. But as far as my students’ engagement in the course, in their emerging autonomy as learners, in their motivation to network and seek answers from a large community of learners, our pilot cMOOC has been a giant success. As one of my students said, in a blog post about a concept experience we assigned using twitter, “Put out your hand and you may just end up with five more.”
All those other hands were reaching to my students, and my hand was reaching too, from all the way across the world, both to my students and students in other sections, and all that reaching built an online community that we called thoughtvectors, and that, like so many stars, was my universe this summer.